story & photos by Katherine Michalak
It’s 5:59am, and today is my day. I’m in shape, there’s no rain in the forecast and the sun won’t set for fourteen hours. I have five quarts of water, a ridiculous amount of food and a topo map. When I sign into the Liberty Trailhead register at the southern edge of the Baca Grande, images of ghost towns flicker across the page. When I look to the south, mirage-like dunes beckon.
Liberty Trail, actually an old jeep road, follows the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range for roughly ten miles from Crestone to the northern border of Great Sand Dunes National Park, passing the ghost towns of Duncan and Liberty. To the west, the trail borders the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge; to the east, the Rio Grande National Forest. The road is closed to motorized vehicles, and few hikers travel this way.
Though miners and their families once staked territory along Liberty Trail, this land is truly wild, a playground for coyotes, elk, bear and mountain lions. It is so remote that even as a hiker used to the Sangres, I feel out of place.
Less than an hour into the hike, the trail forks. I take the left fork but soon conclude that it’s wrong and retrace my steps. Less than ten minutes down the right fork, I worry that the first trail was right. The map is ambiguous—it all depends on how far I’ve come. Calculating my location is more difficult than I expected. Were the two dry drainages I crossed the creeks listed on the map, or have I yet to reach those creeks? I’ll have to keep walking, and if the trail curves left, I’m on my way; if not, I’m losing time.
Thankfully, I’m on my way; I reach Deadman Creek at 7:30. Shortly after crossing Alpine Creek, I hear what sounds like a child yelling to its mother. It’s not crying and it doesn’t sound panicked; it’s just loud. It yells again. Are there people ahead? I hear the sound a third time, and something runs across the trail. It might be a coyote, but I can’t tell. I start singing to myself, eyeing the trees.
For an hour, I keep singing and eyeing trees. Suddenly, I see a cabin in the pines ahead. For no good reason, I shiver. The building marks the townsite of Duncan, and I wonder what other cabins are hidden up Pole Creek. I smile, remembering that the town once had a newspaper called The Duncan Eagle.
I reach Liberty at 9:15. There’s an open gate with a disintegrating “Keep Out” sign hanging from it and a giant “No Trespassing” warning tossed in the grass. Stepping through the gate, I see a corral, a barn and one cabin; off to the side is another “No Trespassing” sign posted on what looks like an outhouse. Next to it is a road leading into the trees.
I’m nervous. Perhaps it’s the hefty chunk of wilderness all around, or the signs (and the plastic food wrapper on the ground) that hint of human presence. I move cautiously, with the uneasy sense that someone might catch me snooping. Peering through one of the cabin windows, I see carpeting, a table and chairs and a bunk bed. I’m too jumpy to try the door.
There’s a cookstove half buried in a grassy ditch; the barn is open. Stepping inside, I face a wall covered with graffiti. To the left are a blue curtain and a hanging sign that reads, “Out of Service.” To the right are another blue curtain and a sign saying, “Occupied.” I hesitantly draw back the curtain. Behind is an overturned blue bucket with a plastic toilet seat on top.
I slip out of the barn and retreat from the townsite, glancing over my shoulder.
Over the next hill is a stunning view of the Dunes, twice as large as the last time I caught sight of them. Framed by dark green pines, they appear surreal, as an artist’s softened yet vivid rendition. The trail opens up, and I relax my guard, glad to be out of the trees.
At the next creek there’s no crossing, and I claw my way through underbrush to the nearest log. Strangely, finding a bridge feels more stressful in this giant sandbox of unknowns than it would otherwise.
Being careful not to go the wrong way, I meet up with Sand Ramp Trail, which curves around the eastern edge of the dunes. I’m 6.4 miles from Sand Creek Trailhead, still a four-wheel drive road away from the visitor center.
The trail becomes sandier; eroding switchbacks curb my enthusiasm, and then the trail is obliterated by an errant dune. “Just a little further,” I keep telling myself. “Just one more view of the Dunes.”
I round a hillside and see the Medano Fire. Foothills obscure the burn area, revealing only blowing plumes of smoke rising from the drainage. It’s stunning—beautiful, in fact.
Gusts of sand swirl into my face and force me to shield my camera. The sun is overhead; it’s hot. I look at my watch: it’s 12:30, and I should turn back.
The sand filling my shoes all morning has been chafing against my toes, and I stop to wrap them in duct tape. Mosquitoes chase me from the shade. When I reapply sunscreen, I rub in sand that has stuck to my skin.
On the way home, I empty my shoes often. I discover a semi-vertical mineshaft above Sand Ramp Trail and another cabin at Liberty. I guzzle water and supply myself with a steady stream of food. Existence feels simple.
I don’t feel exhausted, and yet there’s a strain that comes from unease; from knowing that the wilderness doesn’t care about my exis
tence. I’m simply another animal, fending for myself. Though my legs are sturdy, I can’t run very far or fast. Though I have enough water, it is just enough, and though I have modern hiking gear, my sand-encrusted legs remind me of miner’s legs. I can’t help thinking that environment shapes us, sometimes within a matter of hours. I can’t help thinking how thin the line is between being perfectly safe and being in trouble.
I reach the trailhead at 6pm; I’ve walked 25 miles. My face is caked with three layers of sunscreen and sand, the collar of my sweaty shirt is pulled up to shield my neck from the late afternoon sun and my hat is askew to protect my face from the side. More than anything, I’ve felt the truth of human frailty. The wilderness might be shrinking, but when one is in it, it’s powerful. I realize that, at least for today, I’ve stopped taking the safety of human outposts for granted.